Thursday, November 4, 2010

In judging others, we need to be aware of our limitations

Because I taught students how to be effective persuaders, I was often asked, “Why couldn’t someone take the exact persuasive techniques that you teach and use them the way Hitler used them in Germany more than sixty years ago?”  The answer is: “They certainly could!”  When you teach persuasion, you either teach ethics (what ethical behavior involves) or you assume that those learning the persuasive techniques will use them ethically.  Perhaps the key is to screen students first to make certain they know the difference between right and wrong, have the proper value system in place, and that their past standards of behavior are irreproachable. 

Everyone reading this knows the impossibility of such a test of principles.  But the reason I have proposed such an examination of students’ right-minded conduct is that even if students were to pass such an assessment and the appraisal turned out to be first-rate, and even if you combined such an appraisal with additional corroborating evidence from friends and family, you still could not make an accurate prediction about how these top rated individuals might behave in specific circumstances. 

The point is simply that it is not easy to assess the character of a person.  Here is a close, personal example, although the names have been changed.  Jason came from a Christian family.  His parents were missionaries abroad, and Leesa knew Jason throughout junior and senior high school.  He was the school’s athletic star (outstanding in every sport), and she was captain of the cheerleaders.  Even Leesa’s parents, who knew the family and Jason for many years would have given Jason a strong, positive reference.  Leesa and Jason married; Jason physically abused Leesa; they were soon divorced.   

In another instance, Emily was an outstanding high school student and voted head of student council.  Jacob was a star basketball player.  Jacob, like Jason, came from a religious family.  Both his parents were teachers; the father was a basketball coach at the local high school.   Emily and Jacob were introduced through friends, dated, and, finally, married.  Jacob, as it turned out, was a frequent user of pornography, a thief, a child abuser, and a chronic liar.  Because of these traits and a deceptive lifestyle, Emily and Jacob divorced. 

There is a third similar example as well.  Ethan and Ashley were both members of the high-school band.  They had gotten to know each other because they went to the same church.  Everyone knew both Ethan’s and Ashley’s parents as respectable, upstanding members of the community.  Ethan played drums in the high school pep band, and Ashley, an outstanding athlete, always saw Ethan at her sporting events.  Some interest was sparked between the two as they would hang out together after games.  Interest led to dating, dating led to marriage, and the marriage ended in divorce.  Why?  Ethan abused Ashley emotionally, preferred being single to being married, was too closely tied to his parents, and never seriously considered the importance of either a family or spiritual life. 

We often make decisions about people in real life based on insufficient evidence.  For example, talk to people about whom they voted for and why.  Often, they choose to vote for someone because they like how they look, they hear an insignificant comment made to them about the person by a friend, or they listen to their candidate respond to a reporter’s question in a way that pleases them.  The point of the three examples in the paragraphs above is that even when you think you know someone and even when you think you have sufficient evidence to judge their character, you don’t. 

In most cases in life, we decide who we like or dislike for no good reason.  It is truly an unfair decision based on little or no evidence.  But, if we waited until we knew everything about someone before we made up our mind, we would spend much of our time with no commitments to anyone—in relationship limbo.  Not only do we not have access to the kind of information we need to make up our minds, but even when we think we have gathered sufficient evidence to confirm a decision, the person behaves in such a way as to counter our judgment—totally repudiating not just our evidence but our ability to root out the essential information we need. 

In a class I once taught I had a female student, I’ll call her Samantha, who was talkative, aggressive, and dominating.  When I entered the classroom, Samantha was always talking, showing off, and grandstanding.  When I asked for volunteers, her hand was always the first to be raised, and I had to be careful to give other students a chance to answer questions, or she would have answered them all.  Samantha’s classmates did not particularly like her, but they tolerated her because, it seemed to them, it was better to stay on her good side than offend her in any way.  After the first examination in the course, I realized that Samantha could be the smartest student in class.  Other quizzes and examinations confirmed the first one, and her final paper for the course was one of the best I had ever read.  For all of her “negative” characteristics, Samantha loved the class, thought my approach to it was outstanding, and was the top scholastic student. 

We are all faced with this same dilemma about character.  For all of Samantha’s aggression and dominance, she was the brightest and most capable student in the class.  In another instance, I had what appeared to me to be a bright, capable, charming student who often came up after lecture to discuss something I said, a controversial issue, or a point of view he wanted to share.  It was precisely this student who a graduate teaching assistant discovered submitting the paper of a previous student in class as his own, proving that affability does not relate to one’s moral standards.  It’s the old aphorism that, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”  My contention is that you can’t even necessarily judge a book by the book itself—the book doesn’t always contain enough information or the right information.  Even if it is the “right” information, it may not even hold true in all circumstances.  After all, presidents Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy had secrets which would not have increased their popularity if the facts had been made public. 

Perhaps the issue comes down to the judgments we make of others.  Maybe the best idea is to judge them only on the one, single area of their life that we are able to see or hear, and make certain that our communication of that judgment reflects our limitations.  We can’t judge people based on the sum totals of their personality because not only do we not have those totals, but we will never have them. 


At the website The Well, the very brief (five paragraph) essay, “On the foolishness of judging others,” puts everything in perspective—quickly! 

At The Splintered Mind website, there is an essay by guest blogger, Hagop Sarkissian , entitled “Judging others: When it’s bad, it’s worse than you think,” that will really make you think.  The comments that follow the essay are, too, profound, interesting, and even challenging. 


Copyright November, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. Maximillion Ryan IIINovember 4, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    And yet . . . we make snap decisions about people every day!


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